Monday, July 30, 2012

Titles Good and Bad

I was doing a little research this morning, and I stumbled across a paper by Frances Howard-Snyder, which I think I'd read before but hadn't thought about in a while, called "Rule Consequentialism is a Rubber Duck." I think that might be the best paper title in the world. At least, I haven't thought of one I like better in the last hour or two.

And it makes me a little sad. It seems that, as a group, we philosophers don't work very hard at titling our papers and books. A title should cultivate interest in the project--make us want to read the paper--first and foremost. It should also give a clue as to what the paper is about, I suppose, but if I know what the paper is about but I still don't feel like reading it, the title didn't work. "Rubber Duck" doesn't tell me what the paper is about, exactly (though it gives a clue--bath time), but it does make me want to stop what I'm doing and find out. And in my view that makes it a pretty good title.

If you're not going to give your paper a snappy title that grabs me and makes me want to put down what I'm doing and read the paper, I guess I am okay with the titling convention that lists the two or three topics that the paper addresses. "Blank and Blank" or "Blank, Blank, and Blank," or "Blank and Blank in the Context of Blank," or maybe "On Blank," or "The Nature of Blank," or "A Theory of Blank," or even "Principia Blankica." These are fine, and if you have to use one it will do.

One convention that I don't really care for is when the title is identical to the question the paper attempts to answer. I would much rather know, for example, that the author thinks that time does, in fact, pass than to merely know that the author has taken up the question of whether time passes. And it would be even better for the title to give me a hint about what argument for the passage view the paper defends. So, "Does Time Pass?" is not as good as "Time Passes" or "A Defense of the Passage View of Time," which is not as good as "A New Version of the Irreducibility of Tense Argument for the A-Theory." Or whatever.

But I'm not in love with that kind of title, and I increasingly feel like I don't have the knack for coming up with snappier ones. So instead I'm going to start doing what Plato did, and that's name the paper after one of the principal people the paper is in dialogue with. So, for example, my paper defending consequentialism in normative ethics from objections based on integrity is going to be called "Bernard Williams." The only problem is, my paper attacking mental functionalism is called "Hilary Putnam," but so is my other paper defending it. I'm worried that people might get confused.

--Mr. Zero

Tuesday, July 24, 2012

Starting a Family Before Tenure?

In a recent thread, anon 4:07 asks,

I'm wondering if anyone else would be interested in a thread on the timing of having a family in the midst of a philosophy career. I've heard from many that the only reasonable time for female philosophers to have children is during grad school or after tenure. Is it really death to one's career to have a child after grad school, but before tenure? I can imagine the difficulty of doing so, but would think that it would be highly dependent upon one's personal circumstances.

Anon 1:52 posted the following response:

My spouse and I did when we were both on the tenure track, with enough published and under review to feel fairly confident that tenure was likely. That cuts a few years off the "grad school or tenured" model you mentioned. We both found that there was a relative "lull" after the manias of grad school, the job market, and the early t-track push to develop the portfolio of work that would form the basis of the tenure case. By year three on the t-track, that portfolio was partly published and partly under review.

We had a kid in year four and another in what would have been year six but became year five because the first kid gave us a do-over on year four. We also took a kid-two-driven do-over on year five, even though we probably didn't need to. So the tenure track became eight years, with the second half mainly devoted to placing the portfolio developed in the first half.

As everyone knows, placing pieces of a project -- responding to R&Rs, rewriting from scratch when it becomes clear that an argument doesn't work, etc. -- is just as hard as developing the original ideas. So there was lots of hard work to be done in 20-minute work sessions while the baby napped. (I developed an analogue of carpal tunnel syndrome in my left ankle from rocking the cradle to keep the kid sleeping while I typed.) But, as others have noted, becoming a parent helps provide a focus and grounding that makes you much more efficient in your work. I think I got more work done in early parenthood than I had before despite having much much less time to do it. But it would have been especially difficult to develop completely new ideas in those briefer work-sessions, with so many more demands on my attention.

I think my spouse would make a similar report. In any case, we did both -- one male, one female -- recently get tenure with toddlers in tow.

Of course, it's useless advice to those who haven't yet landed a t-track job. But those starting on the tenure-track may find that they need not put off family till after they're tenured.

I am still pretty new to being a parent and stuff, and I don't by any means consider myself to be an expert on this. But in my admittedly limited experience, taking care of an infant is shockingly, incredibly time-consuming. I'm not sure I'd want to take this on while I was in the coursework phase of graduate school. When you're doing your coursework, you've got a lot of demands on your time, and the demands tend to be somewhat inflexible, and if you're anything like me, anyway, you're pretty much completely broke all the time. That doesn't mean it can't be done--I know it can be done because I saw people do it. But I don't know how they did it.

The ABD phase is somewhat better, I guess. Your schedule is probably more flexible, since you probably don't teach very many classes and you probably don't have to take any classes at all unless you want to, and your writing deadlines are probably more negotiable than they were when you were writing term papers. But you're probably still pretty broke. But then when you get a job, it's a double-edged sword (whether it's tenure-track or not): you make a lot more money, but you have a lot more responsibility. Obviously. I know you know that.

What I'm trying to get at is this: there's no ideal time. There's no time when the responsibilities of caring for a child can be fit seamlessly and without trouble into your already-existing lifestyle. Stuff gets majorly shifted around and reorganized, and nothing is unaffected. Obviously it helps to have access to lots of money, and to have a flexible schedule, and to be able to work from home a lot, and to have other people--spouses, family members, paid staff--to keep an eye on the child/ren while you do other stuff.

And so, at first Mrs. Zero and I wanted to wait until I was on the tenure-track and we were settled in somewhere before we started thinking about Junior. That way we'd have more money and more stability, we'd have a pretty good bet that we wouldn't have to move across the country for at least a few years, it would make sense to think about buying a house, and stuff like that. But at a certain point we started to think that we didn't feel like waiting anymore. We started to think that if it was really important to us to start a family, we should just do it. Not that the problems we foresaw would cease to be problems, or that we just decided to pretend they didn't exist. But we felt that if it was genuinely important, we shouldn't try to wait until we were fully or maximally prepared, because that was never going to happen. But if we're not waiting until we've achieved maximal preparation, what are we waiting for? So we decided not to wait.

And as we were making the decision, I thought a lot about the things people said in this thread from 2009. The things John Turri, Asstro, and others said about how you'll just kind of figure a way to make things work. I guess the thing is, when something is important to you, you find the time for it. (However, the consensus view back in '09 seemed to be that although this is true of one kid, having two is pretty much unmanageable.)

--Mr. Zero

Wednesday, July 18, 2012

College is the new kindergarten

I've been teaching an online course this summer, which more or less requires me to use Canvas. (I guess I could have built a website and such, but Canvas is there, and set up for this kind of thing, so...) But what I've noticed, at least at my school, is that the Canvas gradebook totally enables the instant gratification neediness in students. They freak out if their grades are not posted RIGHT AWAY. They send me emails asking WHY grades have not been posted. They are SURE that there must be some mistake that accounts for that void sitting there in the gradebook.

Me, on the other hand, I hate posting the grades, because as soon as I do, the grubbing starts. The demanding-to-know-why-I-only-got-an-A-minus starts. Which makes me want to not post grades. I'm required to let my students know how they're doing before the drop deadline each term. Freshmen and transfers get midterm grades as well. But I'm not actually required to let them know how they're doing at every moment, and I'm disinclined to do so because of the grade-grubbing and the whingeing and whining.

On the other other hand, the gradebook feature is handy and easy to use, except that it is visible to students. It's not that I think their grades should be a complete surprise to them at the end of the term. They should get enough feedback to know if they're doing OK, or not. And my assessment and pedagogical strategy is to give them more frequent assignments rather than a couple of high-stakes ones. But that only increases the frequency with which they are inspired to complain.

I suppose I could do what I did before Canvas, which is keep my own grading spreadsheet, and make students ask me about their grades. I'm curious about how the rest of you deal with this, and if you see the same instant gratification syndrome in your students.


Thursday, July 12, 2012

I Might As Well Just Tell You

Here's what happened: sometime in the somewhat recent past, Mrs. Zero and I somehow ended up with a kid. We named it Junior Zero, which was the obvious thing to do, and things have been going pretty well. He's healthy and super duper cute, and it's been a pretty amazing experience so far. The only real problem we've been having is that taking care of Junior sort of cuts into the time we would ordinarily spend doing other things, such as sleeping, keeping the house clean, staying in shape, reading philosophy papers, writing philosophy papers, keeping up with sports, keeping up with the news, keeping in touch with friends and acquaintances, reading books, reading blogs, approving blog comments, and writing blog posts. Among other things. So that's why I haven't been posting very much lately.

Things do tend to slow down around here in the summer, of course. Even under the best circumstances, there's just less Smokery stuff to write about in the summertime. And then lately whenever I sit down to write a post, I usually don't get very far before some other responsibility presents itself. Sometimes this takes the form of preventing Junior from getting killed or destroying something important, but often it just means spending time with him. (This post, for example, has taken me a week to write. (Also, I don't like to just sit down and quickly dash something off--whenever I do that, I end up saying something stupid.(Which is not to suggest that I successfully avoid saying stupid stuff the rest of the time.))) Maybe this is weird, but I've felt more like spending time with my kid than writing. And then, when I do sit down to write something, my actual philosophy projects have been getting most of my attention.

But I thought I should come out of the woods to let you know that I'm still here, and that the blog hasn't died, and let you know what's going on with me. I'm just a lot busier than I used to be, and I guess the reality is that I'm not going to be posting as regularly as I used to. I think I'll get better as things settle down and I get more accustomed to the new stuff I have to do now. And I expect that I'll post more as job-market season approaches, and as school starts in the fall. And I expect that, at least sometimes, I'll be interested in discussing how one goes about balancing attempts at career advancement with successfully keeping one's children alive.

One thing I can tell you right now is that being a father adds an entirely new dimension to the stress I feel about the job market. I'm worried about all the things I was worried about before, but now, in addition to the length and breadth they always had, the worries have a previously inconceivable depth. I feel like a Flatlander experiencing Spaceland for the first time. Man alive.

Anyways, sorry about the no new posts in a long time, and thanks for hanging with us even though there have been no new posts in a long time.

--Mr. Zero